5 Ways to Organize a Gift Exchange

published Dec 7, 2015
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(Image credit: Gines Romero)

It’s the spirit of the holidays–you want to give gifts to everyone: Family, co-workers, the friends you see every day. But sometimes because of budgets or the fact that everyone might not know each other all that well, a traditional present swap isn’t going to work out. In those cases, it’s fun to get a little creative and make a game of it. If you’re hosting a party, here are five ideas for getting a gift exchange together. And if you’re attending a party, it’s high time you get to know the rules for some popular (and not so popular) gift swap games.

Secret Santa, or Secret Snowmen

The classic. Some time before the gift exchange, take all the participants names and write them on slips of paper in a hat. Everyone draws a name, then buys a gift for that person that they bring to the party to unwrap in front of everyone. Most groups like to set a price limit, like $10 or $25.

White Elephant (a.k.a. “Dirty Santa”)

The sauciest of gift exchange party games. Everyone brings a wrapped gift to the party for nobody in particular; some people like to “win” the gift exchange by bringing a sought-after item, while others will go for the gag gift every time. Once everyone’s in place and ready to play, draw numbers to see who goes first. That person chooses a wrapped gift and opens it in front of the crowd. It’s theirs to keep, until the next person takes their turn. That person has the option to open a new gift, or steal the gift from anyone who went before them. If a person’s gift gets stolen at any point in the game, they can open a new gift or steal one from somebody else (some groups like to set limits on how many times a single gift can be stolen, or if you can steal back a gift from an earlier round). The game continues until the last person in line either chooses the final wrapped present, or steals one of the other open gifts.

→ Secret Santa Style: Gifts Your Colleagues Will Fight Over

(Image credit: Sugar & Cloth)

Christmas Ornament or Coffee Mug Exchange

The idea here is to give everyone a theme to make or buy for. Suggest everyone bring a Christmas ornament, tacky coffee mug or anything else you’d like to exchange (I happen to love Ashley of Sugar & Cloth’s idea of combining a tacky mug party with a tacky sweater party). You can structure it like a secret santa game, where everyone draws a name and buys an ornament (or whatever) for a specific person, or just have everyone bring their favorite to the party to draw numbers and pick wrapped or unwrapped gifts (with or without the option to steal). The theme can be as far out as you’d like (like only “As Seen on TV” gifts).

Gift Passing Game with a Right/Left Christmas Story

A little bit like the musical chairs of the gift exchange world. Everyone brings a general gift (to no one in particular), then sits in a circle with gift in hand. Somebody at the party reads a right/left Christmas story aloud (you can Google around for one you like, or here are a handful of them in a PDF). Each time they say the word “right,” everyone passes their gift to the person on their right, and does the opposite for each “left” in the story. Once the story is over, everyone keeps the gift they have in their hands (unless it’s the one they brought, then you might need to choose another story).

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

Long-Distance Gift Box Exchange

This idea comes from Real Simple, and I think it would be a wonderful way to exchange gifts with a group of friends who all live far from each other. One of the group fills a box with something she knows everyone will love–like a locally-sourced jam or handmade barbecue mop (you can find more DIY gift ideas on our 2015 Homemade Holiday page). There should be one for each friend, plus maybe a sweet note. That person ships the gifts off to the next person, who takes one of the first gifts for herself, while adding her own set of presents. The box makes the rounds until everyone has gotten every gift (all but the last person will have gotten the box twice).

Have you ever played these gift games? Have any other gift exchange ideas to share?